Eric Berry was drafted two general managers ago with Hall of Fame expectations. He grew into stardom before a torn knee and then an ankle sprain and then a form of cancer and most recently a torn Achilles took the luster off the career of an athlete who was once the most popular man in Kansas City.
Now, he is the most awkward fit in town, and perhaps the entire league.
Here we are, then, in the beginning of what will almost certainly be Eric Berry’s last offseason with the Chiefs.
This week, at the NFL combine, coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach each expressed varying levels of optimism. Berry will not have offseason surgery and is expected to be ready for offseason workouts, despite a heel injury that robbed most of the 2018 season.
He did not play a full game until the AFC Championship Game. Since signing a six-year, $78 million contract he has played 266 snaps over parts of four games in two years as the game’s highest-paid safety. This is a once blissful marriage gone very wrong.
The Chiefs have no comfortable way out of the contract. Berry has no better option. The opportunity for Berry to help push the Chiefs into a Super Bowl being played in his hometown just passed without incident.
Much like with teammate Justin Houston, the Chiefs and Berry have let each other down. The Chiefs – this was back when John Dorsey was the general manager, but still – retained Berry with the franchise tag in 2016 without even making an offer for an extension.
That was a mistake in process, and the result has been even worse. Hypothetically, if Berry would have signed the same contract a year earlier the Chiefs could cut him now and have extra cap space.
As it stands, the Chiefs will have to wait until next year to do what they wish they could do now – cut him.
Berry has let the Chiefs down, too. This isn’t his fault, but the result is the same. He spent the entire 2018 season in a perpetual “day-to-day” portal that became a source of dark humor with the fan base and constant frustration within the organization.
Berry started missing practice in training camp, and Reid talked constantly about how good the communication was, but internally there was enough confusion that many thought he might play in the season opener.
As the Chiefs kept on winning without him, a theory emerged: stung from past injuries and buoyed by confidence in the team and the thought of a Super Bowl in his hometown, Berry was intentionally extra cautious to be sure he was there when it mattered most.
And he was.
He played 97 snaps against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game – the most of any game in his career, and the first time he’d played 100 percent of the defensive snaps since the playoff loss to the Steelers two years earlier.
But his body betrayed him, once more. He made little impact, with six tackles, and most notably was targeted for two of the Patriots’ biggest plays – a fade down the left sideline that set up their last touchdown of regulation, and a simple slant in on third-and-10 during the overtime touchdown drive.
Both completions were to Rob Gronkowski, himself not quite what he once was physically. When the Chiefs lost at New England in Week 6, on one of the game’s most crucial plays Gronkowski was inexplicably left one-on-one with Josh Shaw, who had been signed off waivers two weeks earlier.
If nothing else, replacing Shaw with Berry in those situations figured to be a significant advantage for the Chiefs in the rematch.
Except the Patriots treated Berry essentially the same as Shaw, going at him in two of the biggest moments.
Again, this isn’t Berry’s fault. He is only capable of what his body allows. He returned from a torn knee ligament in 2011 to make the Pro Bowl the next year and first-team All-Pro the year after that. Then he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014 and not only beat the cancer but then played his two best consecutive seasons – two more first-team All-Pros. In 2016, he basically won two games by himself.
Berry has shown himself to be exceptionally gifted, and among the most respected men who’ve ever played for the Chiefs. When the time comes, his name will be included in the Arrowhead Stadium ring of honor.
This is not a story of human failure, then, but one of mercilessly painful timing.
Berry made all 16 starts in 2012, when Superman himself would not have made a difference, and managed just one full game the last two seasons when a fraction of his full powers might’ve pushed the Chiefs into the Super Bowl.
This is a pairing that should’ve been good enough to fulfill the best version of each, but they missed for the most basic and uncontrollable of reasons – rotten timing.
They basically have no choice now but to go on with each other, now a marriage of obligation, each side knowing the payoff of a relationship that’s now nine years and $90 million deep just missed on its payoff.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Sam Mellinger is a columnist for The Kansas City Star.
Visit The Kansas City Star at www.kansascity.com